'Why, when there is so much antisemitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?' a 16-year-old girl wrote recently to a Reform journal.
An Orthodox Jew who read that statement called her up and denied that Orthodox Jews hate Reform Jews. And if you don't believe me, he added, go with your parents to any Orthodox shul on a Friday night, say you are Reform Jews looking for a Shabbat meal, and see what happens.
'You sound like a nice man and I'd like to believe you,' the girl replied, 'but I can't, because all my teachers have taught me differently.'
The lie that religious Jews despise non-religious Jews does more than anything else to poison the air between Jews. The myth serves its promulgators as a convenient smoke screen for the venom regularly aimed at the Orthodox. But its real victims are non-religious Jews, who usually have no personal acquaintance with observant Jews, left more estranged than ever from their heritage.
Fortunately, the claim of Orthodox hatred is easily refuted.
Two months ago, I participated on a panel on the secular/religious divide in Israel at the annual convention of Agudath Israel of America. Everything said was for the internal consumption of the entirely Orthodox audience.
According to the theory of Orthodox contempt, the discussion should have been devoted to descriptions of secular Israelis as nothing but Hebrew-speaking goyim. Yet in nearly two hours of speeches, there was not one word denigrating or condemning the secular public.
The first speaker, Rabbi Yosef Raful-Harari, spiritual leader of the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn and a native Israeli, pounded home one message: Once religious Jews return hate with hate and forget the imperative to love their fellow Jews, the battle is over and the other side has won.
Rabbi Shmuel Dishon, director of operations for the Stoliner hassidic community around the world, began by explaining the halachic concept that every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew. One Jew can, for instance, make Kiddush for another who does not know how. Why? Because if one Jew in the world has not made Kiddush, the Kiddush of every other Jew in the world is lacking. So when we talk about secular Jews, he said, remember we are talking about brothers who are bound to us as one body.
He then proceeded to analyze a number of the hot- button religious issues in Israel from the point of the view of the secular public. Not every word or deed of a religious Jew deserves our defense, Dishon noted.
The final speaker, Rabbi Ze'ev Leff of Moshav Matityahu, did not speak of the secular public at all. Rather he stressed that the Orthodox world must constantly reexamine the clarity of its own ideals and whether it is living up to them.
Last year a new mikve opened up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Nothing remarkable about that - until one considers that there are less than 30 women in Bucks County who regularly use a mikve and $300,000 was raised from Orthodox Jews all over America to build this one.
At the dedication ceremony, the rabbi responsible for raising the money made clear: We did not build this mikve for the 30 observant women in Bucks County. They could have continued to commute a half an hour into Philadelphia. We raised the money for the 50,000 Jews in Bucks County who have never heard of a mikve.
A few months after the dedication of the mikve, I spoke in the adjacent shul. Driving with me from Lakewood an hour away was a young man whom I remembered from yeshiva more than a decade ago. Even then, he was a budding scholar, and he has been learning continuously since then in the Lakewood yeshiva.
He was going to Bucks County to teach beginner's Hebrew to a group of Jews. Imagine an MIT mathematics professor going to nearby Roxbury to teach ghetto children addition and subtraction. Well, that is effectively what this scholar was doing. There were Jews in Bucks County who wanted to know how to read and maybe pray someday, and he was willing to help them. They, not he, determined what they would learn.
Other groups of married men from Lakewood teach similar classes within a 70 mile radius of Lakewood every night. More remarkably, in a half a dozen nearby communities, full-day kollelim have been set up to provide access to the full-range of Jewish learning to anyone who is interested.
Much of the good deeds done by religious Jews have nothing to do with religious observance. Health care organizations like Yad Sarah and Ezer M'Tzion, or Zichron Menahem for young cancer patients, are good examples.
Some years back, a mother of 13 in Mea She'arim heard of a new mother whose baby could only digest mother's milk and who was unable to nurse. She collected milk for the baby from her neighbors, and subsequently decided to establish a milk bank for such cases. Because of the prohibitive expense of AIDs screening, such a milk bank could only be established today in the haredi community.
Over the years, most of the beneficiaries of the milk bank have been non-religious. Their benefactors - all residents of Geula and Mea She'arim - have, in some cases, gone on nursing after delivering their own stillborns or have adopted rigorous special diets for babies that required it. All this has been done according to Maimonides' highest level of hesed - both the benefactor and the beneficiary are unknown to one another.
Even where Jews fight over the definitions of Torah, they do not do so out of hatred. The late Satmar Rebbe was well-known as the fiercest critic of Zionism in his day. Someone once challenged him: 'Our ancestor Abraham prayed even for the depraved people of Sodom and Gomorrah, so why are you forever castigating your fellow Jews?'
The Satmar Rebbe replied, 'Do you know what Abraham said to the people of Sodom themselves? The Torah only records what he said to God.' Then, with tears in his eyes, he said, 'And how do you know what I say to God?'